James P Blaylock is one of the finest writers of ‘American magical realism’ (a genre which he virtually invented single-handedly), and is noted for a distinctive, humorous style, as well as being one of the pioneers of the steampunk sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. The diversity of his writing is impressive, as I’ll go on to hopefully illustrate, but the best words to use to describe a typical Blaylock novel include ‘thoughtful’, ‘moving’, ‘unsettling’ and, of course, ‘unique’. Blaylock lives in California, which provides the setting for much of his work – including the fine novels Land of Dreams, The Last Coin, The Paper Grail, Night Relics, The Rainy Season and Winter Tides – all highly recommended. Notwithstanding the title of this post, although he is the author of several steampunk novels, Blaylock’s output is by no means limited to this sub-genre and he has also written straight fantasy, children’s fiction and short stories published in a variety of magazines and small press editions. As mentioned above, many of Blaylock’s books can specifically be termed magic realism – a genre where magical elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. He and his friends, fellow steampunk luminaries Tim Powers and K W Jeter were mentored by none other than Philip K Dick himself and it is arguable that Blaylock has already left behind a body of work that is comparable to Dick’s in its quality and influence.
As Fabulous Realms has today reached the milestone of one hundred posts, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do something that I’ve been planning to do for some time. Long-time followers of this blog will be aware that I regularly put the spotlight on a ‘mythic archetype’ or fantasy genre, draw out its identifying features and provide what are in my view some of the finest examples of the form. Along the right hand side of this blog site, you’ll see that I’ve grouped my posts into general categories, many of which are self-explanatory but some of which may require a little more in the way of explanation for the casual reader or non-fantasy fan. What do I mean when I talk about ‘Sword & Sorcery’, for instance, and is this the same thing as ‘Epic’ or ‘High’ fantasy? What’s the difference between ‘Urban fantasy’ and ‘Contemporary fantasy’, and where does ‘Paranormal Romance’ fit in? Is ‘Dark fantasy’ the same as horror and is ‘Science fantasy’ the same as science fiction? These questions may or may not have exercised you at one time or another but I thought that it might, all the same, be interesting to explore the – not quite one hundred – ‘Fabulous Realms’ of fantasy fiction in search of answers.
Steampunk is a sub-genre of fantasy, science-fiction and horror in which the grandeur of Victoriana blends with modern technology. Futuristic innovations and anachronistic technology in vintage settings like nineteenth century London or the Wild West are the hallmarks of steampunk. Other typical trappings of steampunk include faster-than-sound airships, brass robots, wooden computers, ornate submarines, baroque time machines and a wide variety of extraordinary devices that are too numerous to mention. Although many works now considered seminal to the genre were published in the 1960s and 1970s, the term steampunk originated in the late 1980s as a tongue in cheek variant of cyberpunk. The genre’s origins can be traced back even earlier, to the scientific romances that first inspired science-fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the works of H G Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Modern standard bearers of steampunk include some highly respected authors whose work has passed into the mainstream, including Philip Pullman, China Mieville and Tim Powers. Even more intriguingly, while most of the original steampunk novels had a historical setting, later works have often placed steampunk elements in a fantasy world with little relation to any specific historical era.